Category Archives: Superfluous Man

A child of heaven, of hell perchance, Devil and god of arrogance.

Yevgeny Onegin, by Alexander Pushkin and translated by Anthony Briggs

Back in 2012 I read and thoroughly enjoyed the Tom Beck translation of Eugene Onegin. Fast forward a few years and Pushkin Press have published a new translation interestingly titled Yevgeny Onegin. Onegin (with any first name) is notoriously difficult to translate so I thought I’d return to it and see how the two translations differed.

Before I get into that a quick word: Briggs quotes early 20th Century Russian literary historian Prince Mirsky as saying that the poetry in Onegin flows and bubbles “like champagne in sunshine”. I can’t speak to how faithful Briggs is to the original Russian – I can’t read that after all – but I can say that Briggs’ translation definitely has that sunlit champagne quality and was an absolute pleasure to read.

Isn’t that a marvellous cover? I absolutely love it.

Before I get into the translation itself it’s worth spending a moment on one of the best translator’s introductions I’ve read. Briggs explains in clear non-technical language the type of poem Pushkin is writing here – the 14 line sonnet. He then sets out the differences between what are typically called English sonnets and Italian sonnets (a question of how rhymes are paired rather than nationality).

The Italian sonnet clusters its lines in two sets of four rhymes then two sets of three rhymes. The English sonnet clusters them instead in three sets of four rhymes with a final set of two rhymes (which tend to either dramatically complete the first twelve sets of rhymes or subvert them).

Pushkin uses both forms (and other sub-forms) in Onegin which is apparently quite unusual. In most poems that use the sonnet form you can tell where you are and what’s coming by the clustering of the rhymes. In Pushkin, because the form varies, by the time you get to the mid-point you don’t know whether this particular stanza follows the English sonnet form or the Italian which means you are intentionally disorientated and often can’t resolve the individual stanza until you finish it.

Briggs explains that this flexibility of form is part of why the poem never becomes tedious to read – it’s constantly changing and refreshing itself. I found this absolutely fascinating and it really helped me understand what was happening structurally within the poem as I read it.

Briggs also touches on a particular difficulty in translation from Russian to English (which generally by his account isn’t all that hard). This is what’s known as masculine and feminine rhymes.

Masculine rhymes end in a single stressed syllable – the cat sat on the hat. Feminine Rhymes follow a stressed syllable with an unstressed one – and that’s harder to give an example of because it’s common in Russian but rare in English. In fact, it’s so rare that all the examples tend to be extremely obvious. As Briggs points out if you hear “languish” the rhyme is very likely to be “anguish”; if you hear “creature” then “feature” is likely to follow.

What all this means is that when translating from Russian in most cases where the Russian uses a feminine rhyme there won’t be a direct English equivalent. When there is it will likely be tediously obvious and therefore dull (Briggs notes “hoping/moping” and “related/dated”). This issue is very present in Onegin, which uses alternate feminine rhymes. The result is the translator needs to be creative making use where possible of part-rhymes and words that sound or feel similar  even if they don’t actually strictly rhyme.

The introduction is a good few pages long and it’s packed with this kind of interesting and useful information. I have no technical background in poetry but even so I found it very easy to follow. Briggs is never patronising but instead writes for the benefit of the intelligent lay reader. Frankly, even if you don’t like his translation the book’s worth buying for the intro alone.

I should though probably now turn to the translation. I’m initially going to quote the very first stanza from each translation, after which I’ll quote several stanzas from my Tom Beck review and after each I’ll again set out the Briggs’ equivalent. Here goes:

Tom Becks:

1
“My uncle’s acted very wisely,
to seek his best when he’s so sick;
his family’s reacted nicely
and he’s most happy with his trick.
He’s set the world a good example,
which others really ought to sample,
but it’s a bore when night and day
the sick man forces you to stay!
To keep him sweet, as if he’s dying,
give him his daily medicine
and make quite sure that it goes in,
adjust the pillows while one’s sighing:
‘Don’t even think of getting well,
The devil take you, go to hell!’”

And here, by contrast, is the Briggs:

1
“Uncle, a man of purest probity,
Has fallen ill, beyond a joke.
Respected now, and scorned by nobody,
He has achieved his masterstroke
With this exemplary behaviour,
But it would try the Holy Saviour
To tend a sickbed night and day,
And never stir a step away,
Employing shameful histrionics
To bring a half-dead man some cheer,
Plump pillows and draw sadly near,
Indulging him with pills and tonics,
Heaving deep sighs, but thinking ‘Ooh!
When will the devil come for you?’”

What immediately strikes me there is that it’s evident that Beck has prioritised flow (as he says in his own introduction – he’s a musician by training and wanted to preserve the musicality of the verse). Briggs here is trickier. See for example his pairing of probity” with “nobody” or (and I think this is rather clever) “histrionics” with “tonics”.

In places the choices change the meaning. In Beck the uncle has acted wisely, which isn’t really a comment on his character but rather on his actions. In Briggs by contrast the uncle is a man of utmost probity. Similarly, in the Beck the uncle is pleased with himself at being tended by his family suggesting a certain manipulativeness on his part whereas in Briggs the use of “masterstroke” makes the line more of an ironic comment by the narrator on the situation.

As to which meaning Pushkin intended I’ve no idea but I think it’s already possible to see how each translator pursues their different goals in the translation. I don’t think Briggs’ “ooh” quite comes off, but I also don’t think it’s fair to pick on the occasional jarring rhyme (and if I wanted to I could do it quite easily do it to Beck too).

Let’s continue. Here’s stanzas three and four from the Beck:

3
Completing service long and faithful,
his father ended his career
and left his son debts by the plateful
from having given balls each year.
And yet my friend was saved from Hades
by his Madame, a Gallic lady;
and then Monsieur took on the lad,
a lively child but never bad.
Monsieur l’abbé, who hated quarrels,
thought learning ought to be a joy,
tried not to overwhelm the boy.
He didn’t bother him with morals,
and if annoyed, he didn’t bark,
but took Eugene to Letny Park.

4
When Eugene grew and first felt passion,
was plagued by love and hope and doubt,
they did what’s always been the fashion
and threw the wretched abbé out.
My friend was free from every pressure,
could live and act as was his pleasure,
so he was always finely dressed
in what was surely London’s best.
He spoke and wrote French to perfection,
bowed constantly, his hair well curled,
and when he danced he turned and twirled,
his light Mazurka no exception.
He didn’t have too long to wait
before the world thought he was great.

And here from the Briggs:

3
With worthy service now behind him,
His father lived from debt to debt.
Three balls a year soon undermined him,
He was as poor as you can get.
Fate saved the boy, who was aware of
Madame, and being taken care of,
And her replacement, a Monsieur.
The child was frisky, though demure.
Monsieur l’Abbé, a Catholic father,
Not keen to weigh Yevgeny down,
Taught him by acting like a clown.
Morals seemed irksome; he would rather
Chide him for the odd naughty lark,
And walk him in the Summer Park.

4
Rebellious youth came in due season –
A season full of hopeful dreams
And gentle sadness – ample reason
To give Monsieur the sack, it seems.
Onegin now, devil-may-care-style,
Copied the very latest hairstyle
And came out like a London fop
To see society, Tip-top
In spoken French (no less proficient
In speech and writing), he could dance,
And with the utmost nonchalance
Perform a bow, which was sufficient
To show him in a pleasing light
As a nice lad, and very bright.

I actually think the Beck is rather good there. I like the references to Letsky Park and to the Mazurka (though again I’ve no idea if either is in the original) and again he clearly achieves the musicality he sets out for. Briggs I suspect wouldn’t be enamoured of rhymes like “lad” and “bad” but “dressed” and “best” is exactly the kind of paraphrasing that Briggs is fond of.

Briggs’ language is again I think intentionally tricksier and riskier. It’s the champagne effect. I love “devil-may-care-style” being rhymed with “hairstyle” which is inspired and I think his first three lines from stanza 4 (“Rebellious” to “reason”) are much more poetic than Beck’s equivalent first two rhymes in the same (“when” to doubt,”). Briggs takes three lines here to capture what Beck manages in two but I think to better effect and both ultimately maintain the overall fourteen line structure.

Moving on, this is from the Beck:

37
Alas! His feelings were now cooling,
he wearied of the social round,
the constant flirting and the fooling
now seemed to him absurd, unsound.
Pursuing beauties now fatigued him,
betrayals, friends no more intrigued him,
nor guzzling beefsteaks, Strasbourg Pie,
champagne until the day you die,
dispensing piquant sayings, grimace,
and bicker, have an aching head
from everything you’ve done and said.
Although he was a fiery scapegrace,
he’d lost his love of having fun,
of sabre-fighting and the gun.

And here from the Briggs:

37
No. While still young he lost all feeling,
Finding the noisy world a bore
And lovely girls not so appealing,
Not so obsessive as before.
Betrayals left him sad and weary,
Both friends an friendship he found dreary.
You cannot keep on sluicing steaks
Or Strasburg pie with what it takes –
The best champagne! And it gets harder
To please the diners with bons mots
When headaches leave you feeling low.
Yevgeny, once a man of ardour,
Acknowledged that his love was dead
For conflict, sabres and the lead.

Briggs makes nice use of French here both reminding us of Onegin’s class and at the same time rhyming “mots” with “low” which I rather like. Becks I think has a more modern feel with rhymes such as “fun” and “gun” while Briggs’ “ardour” through to “lead” feels more period to me. It’s also worth noting here how Briggs rhymes “ardour” with “harder” which I think in context he gets away with.

One final example. Here’s the Beck:

56
Oh flowers, love, you fields and meadows,
Oh idleness, yours is my soul;
I’m not Eugene, we’re different fellows,
that matters to me on the whole
in case some too sarcastic readers
or other bookish, slanderous creatures
should callously compare my quirks
with those of Byron and his works,
as if I were but merely scrawling
my effigy, just like that proud
fantast, as people put around
so shamelessly, (which I find galling),
as if we wrote of nothing else
but poems all about ourselves.

And here’s the Briggs’ equivalent:

56
O rural idyll, love and flowers!
O fields to you I yield my soul…
I mark what differences are ours,
What separates us on the whole,
So that no reader, no wild joker,
No literary libel-broker
Can publish somewhere by design
Onegin’s features as for mine,
And then repeat the claim (outrageous!)
That here my portrait has been daubed
Like Byron’s, proudly self-absorbed,
As if one could not fill these pages
By painting someone other than
One’s own self as the leading man.

I chose this stanza in the original so that I could talk about the links with Byron rather than because of any intrinsic interest to it. Even so it still makes a useful comparator. Again the translation choices impact the meaning slightly: Beck’s Onegin yields his soul to idleness while Briggs’ to the fields. Similar, particularly in context, but not quite the same.

Beck’s choice of “poems all about ourselves” is I think a little pedestrian, which I don’t think is true of Brigg’s “own self as the leading man.” Again though what shines through is the difference in intent. Becks flows well and has a clear rhythm. Briggs is more playful (note for example his “wild joker” with “literary libel-broker”).

What comes out of all this for me is a very clear pattern and a sense of very intentional translations (as of course they should be). Faced with the choice Becks goes most every time for flow and rhythm while Briggs is much fonder of linguistic tricks and little surprises for the reader.

I’m not qualified to talk to better here and I don’t think anyway which is better is an interesting question. As I said at the start of this piece I thoroughly enjoyed the Beck when I read it – so much so that I read a separate translation which is a tribute to the first (it kindled my enthusiasm). Reading his stanzas here afresh I’m reminded quite how good so much of it is. The Briggs’ delighted me. I loved the playfulness and cleverness of it.

Briggs sometimes comes unstuck. At one point he rhymes “intractable young beauties” with “Implacable non-venal cuties” which particularly stood out. That’s unavoidable though because he’s taking greater risks with his rhyme-choices and trying to capture that sense of “champagne in sunshine”. I think he succeeds.

One final remark and that’s on the title of the poem itself. Briggs notes that Yevgeny is more Russian than the commonly used Eugene which is plainly true. However, more importantly he notes that Yevgeny Onegin is a little poem in itself: yev-gen-y/o-ne-gin. Eugene Onegin just ain’t got the same swing.

I may at some future point read the Penguin Classics’ Stanley Mitchell translation. Briggs in his introduction talks a little about other translations but is at pains not to single any out for criticism, save to a small extent the Mitchell which he does raise points on. It may sound odd but I think that’s a form of compliment: Briggs clearly feels the Mitchell can stand up for itself. If I do I’ll post another comparison though I warn you now that’ll make it fifty per cent. as long again as this one…

Oh, and just in case anyone wants to know which translation I recommend you read that’s easy: both of them of course!

Other reviews

Honestly I have no idea so please feel free to leave links in the comments. Interestingly, Nick Lezard of the Guardian has also reviewed both these translations. His Beck is here and his Briggs here.

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Filed under 19th Century, Byron, Lord, Poetry, Pushkin Press, Pushkin, Alexander, Russian, Superfluous Man

a Muscovite in Harold’s cloak?

Eugene Onegin, by Alexander Pushkin and translated by Tom Beck

How does one review a work like Eugene Onegin? It’s not that I’m nervous writing about classics, but Russian novels in verse which are so important they created a genre? That’s a big ask. Nabokov wrote an entire commentary on the poem, and a famously literal translation. Where to start?

Well, if there’s a point to blogging it’s to record a personal reaction. I’m frankly not qualified to speak to any technical aspects of Eugene Onegin. It’s only because I looked it up on Wikipedia that I know it’s in something called iambic tetrameter (and then I had to look up what that was). This then will not be an academic critique; it won’t be an analysis of the poem and its place in Russian literature. This is simply my reaction to a book written around 180 years ago in a language I don’t speak and in a style I’m unfamiliar with. I’m already thinking about reading it again.

Back in 2010 I read Lord Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, written in the second decade of the nineteenth Century. I enjoyed it, but I didn’t read it for its own merits. I read it because without it there wouldn’t be a Eugene Onegin. Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin is the bridge between the European romantic tradition and the later Russian concept of the “superflous man”. That makes it sound of mere historical interest, but Pushkin is far too good a writer for that. This is a delicious novel, still well worth reading.

Eugene himself is a young man about Moscow as the novel opens. He’s a womanising dandy waiting for a long-sick uncle to die so that he can inherit. Here’s how Pushkin introduces him:

3

Completing service long and faithful,
his father ended his career
and left his son debts by the plateful
from having given balls each year.
And yet my friend was saved from Hades
by his Madame, a Gallic lady;
and then Monsieur took on the lad,
a lively child but never bad.
Monsieur l’abbé, who hated quarrels,
thought learning ought to be a joy,
tried not to overwhelm the boy.
He didn’t bother him with morals,
and if annoyed, he didn’t bark,
but took Eugene to Letny Park.

4

When Eugene grew and first felt passion,
was plagued by love and hope and doubt,
they did what’s always been the fashion
and threw the wretched abbé out.
My friend was free from every pressure,
could live and act as was his pleasure,
so he was always finely dressed
in what was surely London’s best.
He spoke and wrote French to perfection,
bowed constantly, his hair well curled,
and when he danced he turned and twirled,
his light Mazurka no exception.
He didn’t have too long to wait
before the world thought he was great.

Eugene’s a dilettante. He spends his evenings at the theatre and at balls, his days at leisure. He has no need to work, and no enthusiasms beyond those custom would applaud. He has taste, or at least a sense of fashion. He is also, however, quite criminally bored:

37

Alas! His feelings were now cooling,
he wearied of the social round,
the constant flirting and the fooling
now seemed to him absurd, unsound.
Pursuing beauties now fatigued him,
betrayals, friends no more intrigued him,
nor guzzling beefsteaks, Strasbourg Pie,
champagne until the day you die,
dispensing piquant sayings, grimace,
and bicker, have an aching head
from everything you’ve done and said.
Although he was a fiery scapegrace,
he’d lost his love of having fun,
of sabre-fighting and the gun.

As Pushkin goes on to say, “Childe Harold-like, he was ill-humoured”. This is of course classic territory (what do you expect? It’s a classic). A bored young blade looking for some means to alleviate his ennui, even before Byron this wasn’t an unfamiliar character. Laclos would have recognised him. Coming just 15 years after Byron’s creation though the source is even more obvious. It’s a point which raises another question: if Harold was as many thought Byron’s thinly disguised autobiography, is Eugene actually Pushkin?

56
Oh flowers, love, you fields and meadows,
Oh idleness, yours is my soul;
I’m not Eugene, we’re different fellows,
that matters to me on the whole
in case some too sarcastic readers
or other bookish, slanderous creatures
should callously compare my quirks
with those of Byron and his works,
as if I were but merely scrawling
my effigy, just like that proud
fantast, as people put around
so shamelessly, (which I find galling),
as if we wrote of nothing else
but poems all about ourselves.

If I hadn’t thought of the question already it would be firmly in my mind after that denial. Pushkin’s well aware that readers will be looking at this wondering if it’s really about him. His narrator, who is of course also a character within the novel, loudly denies that he’s Eugene – “we’re different fellows”. The narrator’s a garrulous sort though, and he can’t resist throwing his own comments into the text, reflecting on how Eugene’s life reflects upon his own and generally digressing.

That split, between Eugene as protagonist and the narrator as meta-character, is what makes this so much fun. Eugene’s story is pretty straightforward. He leaves Moscow and goes to the country, where a young and innocent girl falls in love with him and where he becomes friends with a local poet. During his stay misunderstanding and lack of thought lead Eugene to commit to a duel which ends, as duels in Russian literature generally do, to tragic consequences. In case you don’t know the story I won’t say more, but knowing it wouldn’t harm the book any. Pushkin’s not aiming to surprise the reader with plot twists here.

While all this is happening the narrator is revealing his own character. His acerbic asides reveal his own past romantic misfortune, his loss of fashion and his world-weary cynicism. As with the Tales of Belkin what at first seems to be a framing device becomes as important as what it’s framing. Pushkin, on the strength of the two books I’ve read so far anyway, is an incredibly playful writer.

I’m conscious I’m quoting a lot in this review, but I’m keen that readers get a decent chance to see the style as it appears in Tom Beck’s translation. This isn’t a full stanza, but it’s a nice illustration of how the narrator (Pushkin within the fiction) lets his own character slip into the text:

He had a chaste and upright conscience,
which he quite guilelessly laid bare,
Onegin found that he could share
his friend’s naïve and heady nonsense,
emotions which, however true,
are not exactly all that new.

All this narrative dexterity is married to a rich vein of social commentary. Pushkin’s aim is as accurate as Onegin’s, and he turns it on Russian society, on earnest Romantic poets, on the superfluous men of Eugene’s generation, even on some public figures which (as the end-notes make clear) his contemporaries would have recognised. As so often country folk come out as better than anyone else, but then the myth of the pastoral idyll is always with us (and even that is shown here as stultifyingly dull).

This is the first time I’ve read Eugene Onegin, so I can’t compare Tom Beck’s translation to others. My impression is that a straight translation of Onegin is essentially impossible. The original poetry was innovative and unique, and translating it means making a choice between exactly how faithful you are to the exact meaning of the language and how faithful to the structure and style.

Tom Beck is a musician by training, and that shows here in a translation which emphasises flow over precision. It’s not that he writes his own text (I did compare the opening stanza as it appears in several translations and Beck isn’t rewriting as such), but he wants to keep the poem as a poem and since direct English equivalents of the original Russian words wouldn’t fit the sructure it’s fair to say there will be translations which hew more closely to the original meanings (Nabokov of course being the most striking example).

Meaning though is only part of being faithful. Beck preserves the feel of the poem, he preserves its rhythm and that too is a form of fidelity. Translating fiction is like interpreting music. Two orchestras performing the same piece will each give it their own stamp. Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky when performed by say the London Philharmonic becomes the London Philharmonic’s Alexander Nevsky by Prokofiev. It’s still Prokofiev, but it’s no longer purely Prokofiev.

Is this then a good translation? Well, yes, because I read it and enjoyed it and I felt the movement of it and left wanting to read more. Is it the best translation? Best for whom? Is it a worthwhile translation? Yes, because fidelity to structure is no less valid than fidelity to meaning. There were occasions when I found a rhyme jarred slightly (else and ourselves for example, above) or where I lost the rhythm for a moment and had to reenter the poem. After the first few pages though I found the verse as natural as prose, and if you’re to have any hope of reading a book like this that’s critical.

I’ve long been a fan of Dedalus Press, so when I saw they had their own version of Eugene Onegin I had to give it a try. I’m glad I did, and I hope others will too. This is a lively and fun book, tragic and witty and clever enough to leave many ambiguities unresolved (if the end of The Sense of an Ending left you frustrated this one really isn’t for you). Russian literature has a (undeserved) reputation for being heavy, depressing and difficult. Eugene Onegin is none of those things.

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Filed under 19th Century, Byron, Lord, Poetry, Pushkin, Alexander, Russian, Superfluous Man

A ruin admidst ruins

Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Canto IV, by Lord Byron

Canto IV of Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage was published some six years after Cantos I and II. During those six years Byron’s style developed, with the result that Canto IV is simply better written than I and II were (III was to be fair also pretty good).

So of the four Cantos this is the most technically accomplished. Unfortunately, it also contains the most references I didn’t get and I read it while feeling a little under the weather. That combination means that this is the best of the cantos, but that I enjoyed it least. So it goes.

In Canto IV Byron drops the Childe Harold persona entirely. He complains in a foreword that all his readers insisted on seeing Harold as just being a representation of Byron himself. That being the case, there wasn’t much point to continuing the character. Byron was right. I’m one of his readers and I saw Harold as Byron. Frankly, I didn’t miss him. Nothing that makes this poem worth reading (and it is worth reading) has anything to do with that unfortunate wight Harold.

Canto IV continues Byron’s mix of political comment, travelogue and ode to the joys of nature. Here he introduces (or reinforces) a theme of feminine grace, but for me the older themes of the passage of time and the folly of ambition stood out more proudly. Byron’s travels now take him to Italy, and there amid its many ruins he contemplates art, nature, love and mortality. It’s heady stuff.

Of all his destinations Italy proves the most inspiring for Byron, as it has for so many of us who’ve been there. From my own experience I know how gazing upon the Roman forum or the Colliseum brings home how fleeting even the greatest of achievements can be. Here’s Byron describing the Rome of his day:

CVII
Cypress and ivy, weed and wallflower grown
Matted and mass’d together, hillocks heap’d
On what were chambers, arch crush’d, column strow’n
In fragments, choked up vaults, and frescoes steep’d
In subterranean damps, where the owl peep’d,
Deeming it midnight: – Temples, baths or halls?
Pronounce who can; for all that Learning reap’d
From her research hath been, that these are walls-
Behold the Imperial Mount! ’tis thus the mighty falls1.

CVIII
There is the moral of all human tales;
Tis but the same rehearsal of the past.
First Freedom and then Glory – when that fails,
Wealth, vice, corruption, – barbarism at last.
And History, with all her volumes vast,
Hath but one page, – ’tis better written here,
Where gorgeous Tyranny hath thus amass’d
All treasures, all delights, that eye or ear,
Heart, soul could seek, tongue ask – Away with words! draw near,

CIX
Admire, exult – despise – laugh, weep, – for here
There is such matter for all feeling: – Man!
Thou pendulum betwixt a smile and tear,
Ages and realms are crowded in this span,
This mountain, whose obliterated plan
The pyramid of empires pinnacled,
Of Glory’s gewgaws shining in the van
Till the sun’s rays with added flame were fill’d!
Where are its golden roofs! where those who dared to build?

The theme of liberty is continued, as is that of the folly of ambitious tyranny. Byron reflects on the fate of kings and emperors most of whom end poorly and notes that Napoleon for all his grand goals is now imprisoned. Conquest is pointless because fleeting. When freedom is sacrificed to empire that which is bought has no longevity worth the price paid. The irony is that freedom too is inevitably temporary. As Keynes said, in the long run, we’re all dead.

One of the curious things about the pilgrimage is that although Byron reflects long on mortality and on the passing of things it’s not overall a sad poem. It has much sadness in it. Byron talks often of the transience of human works and in one particularly bleak section he argues that love is as much a passing shadow as ambition or glory. For all that though he finds comfort and joy in the natural world and in the simple act of being alive.

I thought the following passages both distinctly representative of the Romantic sentiment:

CLXXVI
Upon the blue Sympleglades: long years –
Long, though not very many, since have done
Their work on both; some suffering and some tears
Have left us nearly where we had begun:
Yet not in vain our mortal race hath run,
We have had our reward – and it is here;
That we can yet feel gladden’d by the sun,
And reap from earth, sea, joy almost as dear
As if there were no man to trouble what is clear.

CLXXVIII
There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society, where none intrudes,
By the deep Sea, and music in its roar:
I love not Man the less, but Nature more.
From these our interviews, in which I steal
From all I may be, or have been before,
To mingle with the Universe, and feel
What I can ne’er express, yet can not all conceal.

As the Canto draws to a close there is a lengthy and for me moving homage to the splendours of the sea. It’s vastness, mystery and beauty. The Canto ends well, and given its length and frankly for me often challenging nature (I’ll return to that shortly) I found the ending such as to give the whole work a greater satisfaction. There is a sense across the cantos of a work and a voice growing into its potential. The travelogue remains, the arguments about issues of the day, but the focus shifts increasingly towards an awareness of ephemerality and the importance therefore of beauty.

Byron assumed a certain sort of readership for his work, and I am not of that readership. I’m fairly solid as a rule on my classical references but even so there were many here I failed to understand. Particularly in the earlier sections of this canto there were times I could tell something was being alluded to but not what. That I think is a consequence of my education being so different to those he expected to read it when it was published.

Equally, I was challenged at times by the circumstances of my reading. At one point I sought to read it on the train from Folkestone to London. Across the aisle a family sat down, possibly from Porlock, and proceeded to discuss at length the various merits of attractions at the London Dungeon. It’s not clear to me why they couldn’t see both the Bloody Mary exhibit and the Jack the Ripper one, but I do now understand that both have much to recommend them.

I hope they enjoyed it. They seemed nice people and very excited. It’s by no means their fault that Byron struggles to make his voice heard over that of the London Dungeon.

In the end, it’s hard not to be won over by this poem. Byron is a man who thinks nothing of a near-page long digression on the differing backgrounds of gladiators and of how a particular Christian martyr ended the games. Among the romantic philosophy, the politics and the sheer pleasure in his travels there’s sometimes a chattiness which makes Byron just fun to be with. Even through a gulf of time, education and indeed class his charm shines through and it’s easy to see at least some of his allure.

Having now read it I can definitely see why this poem had the impact it did. Despite its challenges it’s often easy to read (and would have been easier in its day); it’s entertaining; it conjures up with great effectiveness distant and romantic lands and takes the reader to them (much as a modern holiday tv show might); for the physical rather than armchair traveller parts could actually be used as a guide book; and on top of all that it has philosophy and reflections on glory, ambition, time and mortality.

Central to it all though is Byron himself. A romantic outsider striding through semi-ruined landscapes, contemplating beauty and brooding on past glories. It’s a figure, an image, which remains powerful today. Even Edward Cullen, the vampire from the Twilight books, is his descendant. For Byron the greatest thing his poem had to show was nature itself. For the reader it is Byron that is the true hero.

Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. I’ve linked to this before, but here‘s a nice article on the whole poem by someone better educated than I to speak to it. It includes a nice excerpt from Canto IV and there are some other excellent excerpts in the comments.

1. The Palatine is one mass of ruins, particularly on the side towards the Circus Maximus. The very soil is formed of crumbled brickwork. Nothing has been told, nothing can be told, to satisfy the belief of any but a Roman antiquary.

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Where rose the mountains, there to him were friends

Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Canto III, by Lord Byron

Romance, war, nature, love, mortality, current affairs, sightseeing tips and parental love. Lord Byron gave his readers good value in his poems.

I wrote here about the first two cantos of Byron’s epic poem, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. The third canto opens with a brief recap reminding readers what the poem’s all about and reflecting on the passing of time since the first two cantos. It then turns to the more interesting subject of the battle of Waterloo and from there to wider thoughts of the relationship of man with nature and the freedom he can find in it.

The Waterloo sequences are impressively crafted. Byron takes an incident of a ball the night before the battle and contrasts it over a number of stanzas with the slaughter of the field the next day. The whole sequence underlines the youth and life of those who fought – what they left behind both at the ball and on the field. It’s powerful material which is diminished by me carving out small excerpts, but for all that it’s worth giving a taste of it:

XXII
Did ye not hear it? – No; ’twas but the wind,
Or the car rattling o’er the stony street;
On with the dance! let joy be unconfined;
No sleep till morn, when Youth and Pleasure meet
To chase the glowing Hours with flying feet –
But, hark! – that heavy sound breaks in once more,
As if the clouds its echo would repeat;
And nearer, clearer, deadlier than before!
Arm! Arm! it is – it is – the cannon’s opening roar!

Byron knew men who died at Waterloo and speaks of them here. He visits a friend’s grave and writes of what he finds. He sees glorious men, but not glorious deeds. Fame and ambition for him merely drive men to pointless ruin. Those who follow great leaders are brought only to destruction.

Against all this there is an alternative. Byron sees the pursuit of worldly wealth and recognition as meaningless and inherently doomed (as well he might, being born to both). Nature is greater than man’s efforts, and through nature man can find happiness. There is a feeling throughout the poem of the transience of our works and the permanence of nature’s (not god’s, Byron invokes him occasionally but his atheism still reads clearly through the text). Here Byron transitions from the Napoleonic theme to the natural:

LVIII
Here Ehrenbreitstein1, with her shatter’d wall
Black with the miner’s blast, upon her height
Yet shows of what she was, when shell and ball
Rebounding idly on her strength did light:
A tower of victory! From whence the flight
Of baffled foes was watch’d along the plain:
But Peace destroy’d what War could never blight,
And laid those proud roofs bare to Summer’s rain –
On which the iron shower for years had pour’d in vain.

From there it’s on to solidly Romantic territory. Life is short and hell is other people. Few things are more enjoyable than wandering around the countryside gazing at the landscape.

Back in February I read von Eichendorff’s Memoirs of a Good-for-Nothing. One of my favourite scenes was where a group of itinerant musicians revealed that they loitered on mountaintops waiting for passing English lords who were pausing to admire the view. Once they spotted one, they’d pester him with music until he paid them to go away. I’m guessing a lot of those English lords would have had a copy of Childe Harold on them.

LXXI
It is not better, then, to be alone,
And love Earth only for its earthly sake?
By the blue rushing of the arrowy Rhone,2
Or the pure bosom of its nursing lake,
Which feeds it as a mother who doth make
A fair but froward infant her own care,
Kissing its cries away as these awake;-
Is it not better thus our lives to wear.
Than join the crushing crowd, doom’d to inflict or hear?

LXXII
I live not in myself, but I become
Portion of that around me; and to me
High mountains are a feeling, but the hum
Of human cities torture; I can see
Nothing to loathe in nature, save to be
A link reluctant in a fleshly chain,
Class’d among creatures, when the soul can flee,
And with the sky, the peak, the heaving plain
Of ocean, or the stars, mingle, and not in vain.

I do actually think that’s well written and I know exactly what he means. That said, it’s hard for me now not to imagine von Eichendorff’s musicians creeping up behind Byron as he contemplates those high mountains. The irony of course is that von Eichendorff’s philosophy itself spoke to the beauty of nature and the importance of living within it rather than chasing ambition.

That’s the trouble with philosophy. It may be deep, it may be true, but comedy has it on the ropes inside five rounds.

Canto III draws to a close on a highly personal note. The canto opens with a dedication to Byron’s daughter Ada. As the readers of the day would have known, his marriage had ended in separation with Lady Byron taking their daughter. The saddest part then of the poem comes as Byron reflects on how much he misses and loves his child. Here’s one final excerpt taken from that section:

CXVI
To aid thy mind’s development, – to watch
Thy dawn of little joys, – to sit and see
Almost thy very growth, – to view thee catch
Knowledge of objects, – wonders yet to thee!
To hold thee lightly on a gentle knee,
And print on thy soft cheek a parent’s kiss, –
This, it should seem, was not reserved for me;
Yet this was in my nature: – as it is,
I know not what is there, yet something like to this.

I suspect the mountains were poor compensation for that loss.

1. Ehrenbreitstein, i.e. ‘the broad stone of honour,’ one of the strongest fortresses in Europe, was dismantled and blown up by the French at the truce of Leoben. It had been, and could only be, reduced by famine or treachery. It yielded to the former, aided by surprise. After having seen the fortifications of Gibraltar and Malta it did not much strike by comparison; but the situation is commanding. General Marceau besieged it in vain for some time, and I slept in a room where I was shown a window at which he is said to have been standing observing the progress of the siege by moonlight, when a ball struck immediately below it.

2. The colour of the Rhone at Germany is blue, to a depth of tint which I have never seen equalled in water, salt or fresh, except in the Mediterranean and Archipelago.

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Art, Glory, Freedom fail, but Nature still is fair.

Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Cantos I and II, by Lord Byron

Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage is travel writing in the form of epic poem, a guide for the aristocratic tourist to carry with him across Southern Europe, with diversions into contemporary politics, thoughts on mortality and complaints about British looting of Greek artefacts (Byron’s not a fan of Elgin).

It’s surprisingly fun, once you get used to the style, with Byron’s own footnotes dotted through the text – filling in bits of colour or recommending the best angle to approach a particular view.

Childe Harold, in the first two cantos at least, is really just a framing device. He’s a “shameless wight” who has “spent his days in riot most uncouth” who leaves England because although just in his 20s he has “felt the fulness of satiety”, in other words he’s bored with his “concubines and carnal companie, And flaunting wassailers of high and low degree.”

Driven by ennui, Childe Harold goes travelling, and once he does we barely hear of him again, he’s referred to on occasion to remind us it’s his story, but in the main it’s Byron addressing the reader directly, Harold almost forgotten. That means this is an epic poem largely without characters and without plot, it’s a good job Byron’s easy to get on with. It’s no surprise though that Byron’s contemporaries thought that Childe Harold was a thinly disguised self-portrait.

Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage was published in three parts, Cantos I and II in 1812, Canto III in 1816 and Canto IV in 1818. The first pairing made Byron famous in his own day, apparently it’s III and IV where this talent truly shines though and it’s those for which people mainly still read the work today.

Anyway, back to the poem itself. I’ll come to the subject of style shortly, but first here’s an example pair of stanzas discussing sights to see while in Portugal:

XX
Then slowly climb the many-winding way,
And frequent turn to linger as you go,
From loftier rocks new loveliness survey,
And rest ye at ‘Our Lady’s house of woe;1
Where frugal monks their little relics show,
And sundry legends to the stranger tell:
Here impious men have punish’d been, and lo!
Deep in yon cave Honorius long did dwell,
In hope to merit Heaven by making earth a Hell.

XXI
And here and there, as up the crags you spring,
Mark many rude-carved crosses near the path:
Yet deem these not devotion’s offering –
These are memorials frail of murderous wrath:
For wheresoe’er the shrieking victim hath
Pour’d forth his blood beneath the assassin’s knife,
Some hand erects a cross of mouldering lath;
And grove and glen with thousand such are rife
Throughout this purple land, where law secures not life.2

It’s easy to picture some young man on his own Grand Tour holding a copy of that while climbing up that path, annotating the margin with his own observations. If you scroll down to where I’ve put the footnotes below, you’ll see too how Byron’s footnotes work with the text, expanding it, adding asides, generally making it all a bit more lively and personal. Half the fun of Childe Harold is the footnotes, which incidentally makes it very important which edition you get as most don’t bother including them. I’ll link to the edition I recommend at the end, but I would say this is a time not to go with Project Gutenberg or any print on demand versions, which generally only have the poem itself.

As the poem continues, Byron continues to guide us along his travels, he visits sites of great battles, talks about French aggression towards the Spanish and the Ottoman occupation of Greece, he penetrates the Albanian interior and meets the famous Ali Pasha. It’s often glamorous stuff, written about in a frequently world-weary tone – a combination which must have been irresistible to the less travelled people of his day. Hell, it’s hard to resist now.

Here Byron writes about the battle of Talavera, then recent current affairs rather than history. Byron later lent critical support to the Greeks in their war of independence against the Ottomans, so he wasn’t a pacifist, but as the following stanzas (and his subsequent reference to the troops as “Ambition’s honour’d fools!”) show he was deeply sceptical to claims of the glory of war:

XL
By Heaven! it is a splendid sight to see
(For one who hath no friend, no brother there)
Their rival scarfs of mix’d embroidery,
Their various arms that glitter in the air!
What gallant war-hounds rouse them from their lair,
And gnash their fangs, loud yelling for the prey!
All join the chase, but few the triumph share;
The Grave shall bear the chiefest prize away,
And Havoc scarce for joy can number their array.

XLI
Three hosts combine to offer sacrifice;
Three tongues prefer strange orisons on high;
Three gaudy standards flout the pale blue skies;
The shouts are France, Spain, Albion, Victory!
The foe, the victim and the fond ally
That fights for all, but ever fights in vain,
Are met – as if at home they could not die –
To feed the crow on Talavera’s plain,
And fertilize the field that each pretends to gain.

One of the surprising things about Childe Harold is how modern many of its sensibilities are. Byron is passionate about freedom, democracy, rights of self-governance. His sympathies lie with people who wish to run their own lives, and against those who wish to conquer others. He’s angry at bigotry and sceptical of religion, at times openly atheistic and though he tolerates various faiths it’s clear that as a rule he doesn’t see much to choose between them. If it wasn’t too modern a term, I’d call him a humanist:

III
Sun of the morning, rise! Approach you here!
Come – but molest not yon defenceless urn
Look on this spot – a nation’s sepulchre!
Abode of gods, whose shrines no longer burn.
Even gods must yield – religions take their turn:
‘Twas Joves – ‘tis Mahomet’s – and other creeds
Will rise with other years, till man shall learn
Vainly his incense soars, his victim bleeds;
Poor child of Doubt and Death, whose hope is built on reeds.

IV
Bound to the earth, he lifts his eyes to heaven –
Is’t not enough, unhappy thing! to know
Thou art? Is this a boon so kindly given?
That being, thou would’st be again, and go,
Thou knows’t not, recks’t not to what region, so
On earth no more, but mingled with the skies?
Still wilt thou dream on future joy and woe?
Regard and weigh yon dust before it flies:
That little urn saith more than thousand homilies.

What’s perhaps less modern is a definite pastoralism, a romanticism (but then of course he is the great romantic hero). Men’s lives are short and petty things, empires fall, glory is lost in the dust of the battlefield, gods are barely longer lived than those who worship them, but nature remains. In nature there is a solace that cannot be found elsewhere, a cleansing balm, reconnection with nature lends perspective and a deeper enjoyment than is available in any lehman’s bed.

The romantic movement is not one I’m strong on, but I do understand that it elevates nature, the concept of the fall remains from Christian thought but is recast as a fall from a natural rather than divine state. Our civilised aspects divorce us from that which is most true (Chateaubriand is big on this). That theme runs through these cantos too. Harold, Byron, is jaded by pleasures at home and unimpressed by martial scenes and great deeds, but solitude and contemplation of the natural revives him:

LII
Ne city’s towers pollute the lovely view;
Unseen is Yanina, though not remote,
Veil’d by the screen of hills: here men are few.
Scanty the hamlet, rare the lonely cot:
But peering down each precipice, the goat
Browseth; and, pensive o’er his scatter’d flock,
The little shepherd in his white Capote3
Doth lean his boyish form along the rock,
Or in his cave awaits the tempest’s short-lived shock.

In terms of readability, it’s fair to say it took me a while to adapt to the style of the work. For the first hour or so I was aware of the structure of the poem, I was thrown by lines not scanning as I expected, part of me still working out the rules. You may find the same if you try it. It’s worth sticking with though, because after I pushed myself through that barrier, it became natural, it flowed. Now, when I read it, I read it as easily as prose, but that didn’t happen straightaway. Poetry is its own language, the rewards are there but I found I had to invest a little time learning how to get them out. It’s best if you’re not already used to reading this sort of work to bear that in mind, have a little patience and persist a little longer than perhaps you might otherwise be inclined to.

Stylistically, well, I’m not versed enough in poetry to talk effectively about technique, but it’s fair to say he wrote better later. This is good, it flows well and the imagery is sometimes striking, but it lacks the power of those parts of Cantos III and IV I’ve looked at. In some ways that makes it an excellent entry point to Byron’s work, it’s good enough to show his talent but doesn’t spoil you for the better works to come.

In the end, this is a warm and human work. It’s chatty, in the footnotes, and its descriptions of Southern Europe are interesting and entertaining. Some of the asides are lost on me, I’m just not as familiar with the Napoleonic wars as people who lived at the time obviously would be, and I don’t have the richness of Classical education Byron assumes in his readers, but I found that if I didn’t worry about getting every reference it didn’t matter – I got enough to make it still rewarding. It’s also a fascinating insight into a world at times very different to our own (at one point Byron falls into a fever, and credits his recovery to his guards holding off his physician at knifepoint so preventing the likely lethal treatment of the age), and at other times strangely familiar:


Or Wahab’s rebel brood who dared divest
The prophet’s4 tomb of all its pious spoil,
May wind their path of blood along the West;

The edition I have is a Penguin Classics imprint, containing a wide range of his poems, not just Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. It’s edited by Susan J Wolfson and Peter J Manning, and is up to Penguin’s usual high standards. As I’ve said a couple of times now, the footnotes and endnotes are essential, here they’re reproduced in full, as they should be. I’ll be reading Cantos III and IV, from the same edition, in the coming month or so. Byron spaced them out, I’m comfortable doing the same.

Child Harold’s Pilgrimage. There’s also an excellent article about the poem here.

1. The convent of ‘Our Lady of Punishment,’ Nossa Señora de Pena, on the summit of the rock. Below, at some distance, is the Cork Convent, where St Honorius dug his den, over which is his epitaph. From the hills the sea adds to the beauty of the view. – [Since the publication of this poem, I have been informed of the misapprehension of the term Nossa Señora de Pena. It was owing to the want of the tilde, or mark over the which alters the signification of the word: with it, Peña signifies a rock; without it, Pena has the sense I adopted. I do not think it necessary to alter the passage; as though the common acceptation offered to it is ‘Our Lady of the Rock,’ I may well assume the other sense from the severities practised there. – Note to 2nd Edition.]

2. It is a well known fact, that in the year 1809, the assassinations in the streets of Lisbon and its vicinity were not confined by the Portuguese to their countrymen, but that Englishmen were daily butchered: and so far from redress being obtained, we were requested not to interfere if we perceived any compatriot defending himself against his allies. I was once stopped in the way to the theatre at eight o’clock in the evening, when the streets were not more empty than they generally are at that hour, opposite to an open shop, and in a carriage with a friend: had we not fortunately been armed, I have not the least doubt that we should have ‘adorned a tale’ instead of telling one. The crime of assassination is not confined to Portugal: in Sicily and Malta we are knocked on the head at a handsome average nightly, and not a Sicilian or Maltese is ever punished!

3. Albanese cloak.

4. Mecca and Medina were taken some time ago by the Wahabees, a sect yearly increasing.

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